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Culture Fluency – Experiencing Another’s Reality

Friday, April 10th, 2009

Prime among the tasks we cross-cultural missionaries and development workers engage in during our first tours on the field is the study of language and the culture. More to the point, we strive to gain fluency in language and culture of the people among whom we minister.

This IS the first stage of our mission. Despite what others may say, we know that we are never really transformed into the likeness of those people. We don’t even try to do that, but we do our best, and ask the Almighty to aid us, to understand what it is like to be one of them.

We look for signs that mark our progress in this understanding. One of the key signs that we are gaining fluency in a language is the ability to no longer translate in our head. Those words that used to be so strange now enter our ears and we respond without being aware of any search for meaning.

That same degree of culture fluency will benefit us greatly in our ministry. This new, ‘foreign’ culture is the realm in which these people live and it is the reality in which we work. We must come to intuitively know what those among whom we minister are perceiving as reality and how they react with it. We are not only concerned with how they act. That is the easy and less important aspect of culture to understand. How they act and react internally – what they think and how they reason – is of extreme importance to us. The outward manifestations of culture such as eating habits, medical practices, agricultural processes, even birth rites and sacrifices are easy to observe. It is more difficult, yet more pertinent, for us to know why they do not eat fish, why they slice a narrow cut across the stomach of a sick child, why they leave some plots of land uncultivated and deplete the nutrients from others by cultivating them year after year, why women stay secluded after giving birth and why village elders go into the forest to sacrifice a chicken.


We may become fluent in their language. But, do we hear what they hear and picture in our minds what they see when we speak those words. We need to know what they are perceiving when we say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for your sins.” We need know what they feel when we tell them “God is the Almighty and He loves you.” To understand those thoughts and emotions is to gain the fluency necessary to really communicate – to say what we want to say and to know how it is being received.

To jump into “the work” before gaining culture fluency is to assume that those we minister among are going to struggle and come to understand what we are saying and somehow allow this knowledge to change their lives. This is a task that is almost impossible for most of them.

We cross-cultural workers routinely set out to learn culture. We see, hear, and smell that we are in a ‘foreign’ country. We are good at learning about what we experience through those senses. But we learn them through our own emotional and perceptual grid. I might see a particular cluster of huts in Benin for the first time. I most likely perceive the huts to be a village, or a set houses that families live in. My friend who is a member of the Aja ethnic group in Benin may accompany me and see the same cluster of huts, but he may be aware that he is entering a territory where gods and ancestral spirits different from those in his own village reside. I might want to tell the people in this new village why I have come so they will know that I have come with something important to tell, but my Aja friend begins by telling them where he lives, what clan he is from, who his father is and asks if any women from his clan have been married into this village. He says this so that he can communicate to them that he comes from a peaceful linage and means them no harm. It is not a matter of just learning what words to say when you greet people, but what are the emotions involved when strangers meet. We should not only learn the verbal dialog, but the dialog that is going on in their minds – their thoughts and emotions.

Culture fluency – understanding what is going on in their heads – has an enormous impact on the ultimate outcome of our ministry. The stakes are high. We need to be keenly aware that if we do not comprehend how they think and feel we may not be able to point them to the eternal help that God offers to the crucial problems, dilemmas, hurts and fears that reside in their emotions and outlook on life.

This deep level of culture awareness comes not primarily by observing what they do in their culture. It comes by experiencing it as they do. It is extremely difficult for an outsider to experience a culture the way an insider does. It is difficult, but not impossible.

There are some aids to learning the emotions and perceptions of a people group. Their contemporary songs, poetry, proverbs, and myths are windows into their minds and view of the world. I am not talking about traditional culture here – not the historical descriptions and explanations that are found in most ethographies written by scholars, who are outsiders. I am referring to folk or pop culture – the songs on the lips of women today as they prepare food or weed the fields and the proverbs men tell at informal public gathers around fires, on the street corners, or in the bars. We should know the contemporary music on the radio. The poets who compose the songs are creating mirrors that reflect thoughts of the common people. Something else we need to do is acquire the skill of purposeful, polite eavesdropping. Listening to what people talk about among themselves can reveal a lot about what is important to them – what gets them excited, makes them mad, and causes them to laugh. How they interact reveals their emotions and view of the world.

For we cross-cultural workers culture fluency is important to our own well being and peace of mind. Without it we find ourselves more of a loner and outsider than we have ever been in your life. We are outgoing people. We like to fit in. I remember attempting to tell jokes to my Kipsigis friends in Kenya. Instead of laughing, they just starred at me. When they told jokes to each other, I found myself wonder what was so funny.

I came to know Christ in my own cultural milieu. I cherish my individuality. I also feel my own very personal pain over the way people treat me and over the way I have treated God, yet understand God’s grace – He loves me and has forgiven me and continually brings blessings into my life. That is a far different view of the reality experienced by my non-Christians Aja friends who I desired to share my faith with. Reality for them is: many infants die, adults die young, crops fail, disease is everywhere and most of this is the result of the interactions in the unseen realm of gods and ancestral spirits who lurk everywhere. Fear is a major common denominator. Yes, I can sympathize with them, but sympathy does not cause them to engage with the Lord and His word. Sympathy is what an outsider feels. Empathy – ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15) – is what we need to pray for and strive to gain. We need to somehow experience what they feel, even in a fleeting and momentary manner, and to sense the hurt and pleasure in their lives and know what is causing those emotions. If we can borrow their lenses to see and feel the world as they do we can begin to introduce them to the appropriate scripture and emotion of the Lord that will stand a chance of being perceived as a genuine, possible remedy to one of life’s real predicaments.

I feel the need to speak now to an African who is working among Africans or an Asian working among Asians. You are no longer like those you are ministering among. You, too, have been changed by your academic studies, exposure to Western ways, and you have come to the Lord and walk with Him. You cannot assume that you still understand your people, especially when you are working with an ethnic group different than your own. You need to take the same care as an American missionary in acquiring the eyes to see reality as the people around you see it.

In the same manner, this is language and culture fluency ought to be acquired by domestic church planters and preachers as well. Most North Americans ministering to North Americans and Europeans ministering to Europeans have gone through four years of undergraduate study, went on to graduate school and/or seminary – floated around in the culture and language of the academic halls – then stepped up to the pulpits. They have become outsiders and cannot afford to assume they have remained fluent in the popular language and culture of their contemporary parishioners. They, too, must acquire this fluency if they are to expect to help those they work among to engage the Lord and the scriptures.

We cannot really gain an understanding of culture through academic study. Don’t get wrong, while we are still in our home culture or in the academic halls we should read all we can about the culture of the people we will be working among. Even after arrival on the field we will do well to latch onto to and read every book and article about them. (Domestic church planters and preachers need to subscribe to Psychology Today, Wired, and Harpers Magazine and read the lyrics to contemporary songs.)

A word of caution is needed here. Attempting to gain culture fluency from books, articles and even from the mouths of co-workers and long-term missionaries has its pitfalls. Such knowledge has the potential of being what Dave Parrish, my former colleague at Pioneer Bible Translators, calls ‘missionary myth’ – a misunderstanding handed down from one outsider to the next. We need to observe and experience the culture for ourselves. As we interact with the people we will ask God to show us what He wants us to know about these people He has sent us to.

A final word of caution. We missionaries and church planters are prone to be concerned with and speak about the heavenly and eternal things: the Creator, Satan, origin of man and his destination. Development workers have the tendency to explain things and work in terms of Western scientific method and reflect on ‘best practices,’ modern physical remedies and procedures. Both miss the concern of the common people who must deal with day to day life and relationships as it is played out here on earth where seen and unseen beings and powers interact.

How might we better experience how the common people in our own or other cultures view the world? How might we walk in their shoes for awhile? What are your thoughts on acquiring culture fluency?